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Iraq-Syria-Europe: On The Shifting Front Line Against ISIS

The Islamic State has been significantly weakened, at least from a military point of view, in Iraq and Syria. But the final blow keeps being postponed, even as jihadists strike in the heart of the West.

Iraqi Peshmerga fighters near Sinjar on Nov. 12
Iraqi Peshmerga fighters near Sinjar on Nov. 12
Daniel-Dylan Böhmer and Alfred Hackensberger

SINJAR — One whole day, and through the next night, American fighter jets were dropping their bombs. Countless houses, but also ISIS military positions in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, went up in smoke.

"Once they had enough, they ran off like bunnies," says the lanky young Kurdish fighter who gives his name as Daoud, and cradles a Kalashnikov in his lap. "They were hiding in their cars, using women and children as human shields."

On Nov. 13, when the ISIS killers wreaked havoc in Paris with their own automatic weapons, Daoud was busy fighting the terrorists here in Sinjar, on the front line. The Kurdish troops won their battle.

Even as they have successfully struck the heart of Europe, ISIS is looking extremely vulnerable back in their home territory. The attack of 7,500 men in northern Iraq took no longer than 48 hours, liberating this strategic area from Islamist tyranny. Sinjar, a former home to the Yazidi minority, is a midway point between two key ISIS strongholds: the Iraqi metropolis of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa. And here, ISIS is losing ground every day.

"Their defense was comprised of no more than 300 or 400 men," says Major Kassim Simo, Sinjar's head of security. "Up to 200 were killed, it is not known how many died on the run." The ISIS manpower shortage appears to be making it impossible for them to properly defend their own territory.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, the coalition has carried out about 8,000 operations against ISIS since 2014, during which at least 10,000 fighters have been killed. And even if the death rate turns out to be slightly exaggerated, the U.S. bombings have nonetheless caused significant damage. During the three-month battle in the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobane, thousands of jihadists were believed to have been killed, which reports say led to a subsequent rebellion within their ranks.

Backing off

U.S. intelligence estimated ISIS in September 2014 to be between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters strong. At that time, thousands of volunteers from all over the world were queuing up each month to become members. According to Western sources, today there are no more than 50 or 60 per month. If a town like Sinjar, with 50,000 inhabitants, boasts only 300 to 400 fighters present, the shortage becomes clear, as does the eventual vulnerability to assault.

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Yazidi temple in the Sinjar mountains — Photo: Danpanic77/GFDL

Still, at the end of the day, the power ISIS has wielded has never been about outnumbering the enemy: It is rather based on an ability to spread fear and terror. It took them only 1,500 men to conquer Mosul last year, after the Iraqi army fled in horror when they saw them coming. The same dynamic helped the Islamic State conquer one third of the country. But if there is resistance, ISIS fighters are quickly put back in their place.

That's what we can see today in Syria. In Aleppo, Bashar al-Assad's troops continue to send ISIS in retreat. And the Syrian Democratic Forces — a military alliance of Kurds, Sunnis and Christians — stand 40 kilometers from the ISIS capital of Raqqa. From a military point of view, ISIS could be defeated within a couple of weeks. French and Russian forces have stepped up their bombings, while the U.S.-led coalition averages 600 operations per month.

Fear paralyzes the armies

Why, then, does the final knockout blow keep being postponed? There's at least one good reason for it: the fear of what may come next, notes David Des Rochers, senior military fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies. "If the political environment is not altered, if the Sunnis in both countries don't get any perspective, then the crushing of ISIS would be about as helpful as mowing the lawn," Des Rochers says. "The threat would just grow back."

Des Roches notes the constantly shifting risk of conflict driven by the Shia-Sunni clash throughout the region. "None of my Sunni friends are pro-ISIS. But they all tell me: "Why are you surprised? After everything the Shia have done to the Sunnis in Iraq ..."" Washington does have a certain influence on the Shia-led government in Iraq, but virtually none in the never-ending Syrian civil war.

Does all of this mean that the West should stay out of the Middle East as much as possible? According to political scientist Asiem El Difraoui, "When it comes to attacks like the ones seen in Paris, there are usually two factors involved: Europe's social situation and its foreign policy failure."

El Difraoui, A German-Egyptian who has long been based in Paris, warns that everything should not be attributed to the social exclusion of young Muslims in Europe. He notes how adolescents from different social classes and contexts have turned to the deadly extremism. "They feel they are missing values and are looking for ways to identify with this society," says El Difraoui. "This might be because, similar to what happens in French suburbs, once they've failed at school, the only way they see the state is in the form of armed police. It may also trace back to the growing materialism that puts democratic values up front."

What all these different forms of alienation have in common is the pseudo-religious concept of self-sacrifice. "This false and destructive doctrine of salvation through jihadism arose in the 1980s. By that time, the West was helping to build extremist groups, for instance in the fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan," El Difraoui recalls. "Ever since, these groups have declared themselves at the center of history."

And if ISIS can indeed be vanquished, what can Europe do in order to prevent another successor from emerging? "Establish once and for all a stable foreign policy in the Middle East," says El Difraoui. "And show that in our democracy, you can live an unrestricted and multifaceted Islam, in contrast to most Arab countries."

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